Elvis Costello’s 10 greatest tunes
The singer/songwriter born Declan McManus has never disguised his ambition. As Elton John noted while inducting his colleague into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, ”the cheeky f—er named himself Elvis!” And Elvis Costello has followed that initial act of bravado with one of rock’s most wide-ranging and prolific careers, from his punk and new-wave early years to his later experiments with classical music and ornate pop. In honor of Costello’s two new albums (the rock CD Delivery Man and the orchestral Il Sogno), here are 10 reasons to hope this Elvis won’t leave the building anytime soon.
”Alison” (My Aim Is True, 1977)
Elvis Costello… and the News? On his first album, Costello was backed by the San Francisco band Clover, who later found fame with Huey Lewis under a new name. But don’t let that spoil your appreciation of this barbed ballad, in which Costello’s appealingly adenoidal baritone delivers vindictive lyrics with deceptive calm. The song includes an early example of Costello’s famous puns: ”I don’t know if you’re loving somebody/ I only know it isn’t mine.”
”Radio Radio” (This Year’s Model, 1978)
By his second album, Costello had his own backing band, the Attractions, whose frantic approach — led by Steve Nieve’s carnival-run-amok organ and Bruce Thomas’ fat-toned bass — is immortalized in this frontal assault on restrictive airwave formats. The lyrics about radio programmers (”They don’t give you any choice/ ‘Cause they think that it’s treason”) could well have been written with the age of Clear Channel in mind.
”Accidents Will Happen” (Armed Forces, 1979)
A distinctive bassline from Thomas again takes the lead on this tune from Costello’s third album, which captures two of his favorite themes, infidelity and guilt: ”Accidents will happen/ We only hit and run/ I don’t want to hear it/ ‘Cause I know what I’ve done.”
”Oliver’s Army” (Armed Forces, 1979)
With its ABBA-meets-Springsteen piano riff, this is one of Costello’s catchiest tunes, and its pointedly political lyrics — about working-class kids pressured to join the military — would make Michael Moore proud.
”Almost Blue” (Imperial Bedroom, 1982)
A smoky-nightclub breakup song backed only by jazzy piano and bass, ”Almost Blue” could easily pass for a 1930s standard. Its artful lyrics (”Not all good things come to an end/ Only a chosen few”) and timeless melody helped prove that Costello could stand alongside any of the last century’s great songwriters.
”I Want You” (Blood & Chocolate, 1986)
It starts out as a straightforward little love song. Then there’s a burst of spy-movie guitar followed by a loping beat, and it becomes clear that the narrator is a self-flagellating victim of obsession: ”It’s the thought of him undressing you/ Or you undressing,” Costello whisper-moans. It only gets scarier from there: ”I’m afraid I won’t know where to stop… I want to know the things you do that we did too/ I want to hear he pleases you more than I do.” Gulp.
”Veronica” (Spike, 1989)
Among his other distinctions, Costello is perhaps the only person not named John Lennon who’s been able to collaborate fruitfully with Sir Paul McCartney. Among the tastiest fruits of Costello’s brief songwriting partnership with the ex-Beatle: the cascading melody of ”Veronica,” which manages to be supremely bouncy while telling the tale of a senile woman. ”Say, Say, Say” this is not.
”13 Steps Lead Down” (Brutal Youth, 1994)
When he re-formed the Attractions after an eight-year break, Costello didn’t just pick up where he left off — instead, he pushed the band to make its most guitar-heavy, aggressive music ever. This insistent, noisy punk track stands up against Costello and the Attractons’ early landmarks.
”All This Useless Beauty” (All This Useless Beauty, 1996)
Steve Nieve’s lyrical piano is key to this half-bitter, half-wistful ballad, in which a woman gazes at a gallery wall and wonders, ”What shall we do with all this useless beauty?” Adding a touch of rock aggression to the sort of classical delicacy Costello displayed on his orchestral Juliet Letters album, ”Beauty” is aptly named — minus the ”useless” part, of course.
”Toledo” (Painted From Memory, 1998)
Costello’s partnership with another ’60s songwriting great, Burt Bacharach, produced an album’s worth of instant-classic torch songs. Perhaps the best of them, ”Toledo” boasts one of Bacharach’s signature horn arrangements, some of Costello’s most supple crooning, and Cole Porter-worthy lyrics: ”But do people living in Toledo/ Know that their name doesn’t travel very well?/ And does anybody in Ohio/ Dream of that Spanish citadel?”
What are your favorite Elvis Costello songs?